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First International Humanist Conference in Africa a Success

 Norm R. Allen, Jr.


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 17, Number 4.


The Nigerian Humanist Movement hosted the first international humanist conference in Sub-Saharan Africa from October 8-10, 2001. Humanist scholars, writers, academics, and activists from Nigeria, Uganda, and the U.S. gathered at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria's premiere university.

The scholarly presentations were impressive, thought provoking, and controversial. They often sparked heated debates during the question and answer sessions. In "Combating Superstition in Artificial Human Reproduction," philosopher Peter F. Omonzelele of the University of Benin (Nigeria), argued that the Catholic Church opposes artificial means of reproduction due largely to their prohibitions against masturbation and adultery. Moreover, they are against unmarried women giving birth. Omonzelele argued that because most religionists do not oppose life-improving procedures such as blood transfusions, they should not be opposed to procedures such as artificial insemination. He further argued that married and single women should have the right to decide how they are to become pregnant.

Dr. Sanya Olutogun presented a paper titled "Biotechnology and the Fight against Hunger in Africa." He argued in favor of genetically modified foods to eradicate hunger throughout the continent. His presentation and many others showed that African humanists often differ with their Western counterparts on some issues. In the West, many environmentalists and humanists are opposed to what they call "Franken foods." In Africa, however, many scholars are more apt to argue that the concerns raised by many environmentalists in the West are not backed by good science. Olutogun, for example, believes that biotechnology holds great promise for combating hunger and starvation in Africa.

Sheila Solarin, the matron of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, and the widow of the late humanitarian free thinker Tai Solarin, gave an excellent presentation on the importance of humanism. She noted that human beings should do away with the God-of-the-gaps. We used to believe in the rain god and the god of thunder, she noted. But after we learned more about the weather, such gods became obsolete. Similarly, in the past we wanted to increase the world's population and we believed in fertility goddesses. But today, we want smaller families. We do not, however, worship infertility goddesses. "We have Planned Parenthood," she wryly noted.

Humanist leaders gave reports on the state of humanism in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Black America. Gebregeorgis Yohannes is the founder of the Ethiopian Humanist Organization. He noted that "it takes a great deal of courage to go against established beliefs and superstitions in Africa." He discussed the danger involved in trying to popularize humanist ideals in cultures where there is no tradition of freedom of dissent. He called for bravery and tact among African humanist leaders.

Yohannes and another Ethiopian humanist produced a ten-page humanist brochure detailing humanist principles and how they pertain to Ethiopian life. Yohannes is developing a Web site for the African Humanist Alliance (AHAL) with the support of African Americans for Humanism. It will be utilized as a resource for information and communication among humanists with an interest in African affairs.

Nsajigwa I-G Mwasokwa has established a group called Sisi Kwa Sisi (Swahili for "all of us" or "together as one"). The Tanzanian group is in its infancy, but it is growing. According to Mwasokwa, Christianity did not enter Tanzania until 1884-1885 with the Berlin conference. The colonial government branded indigenous African religions "primitive" and "polytheistic."

Long before the advent of Christianity, however, Arabs and Persians brought Islam to Tanzania between the 8th and 13th centuries. Though the Muslims also looked down upon indigenous African religions, they saw similarities between the Muslim faith and African traditions. Mwasokwa says that traditional African culture embraced patriarchy, polygamy, and community oriented principles. It was therefore easier for Muslims to gradually attract Tanzanians to Islam, rather than trying to convert them as Christians did.

Mwasokwa says that humanism presents the new "way forward." He says that the humanist life stance is badly needed to combat dogmas, harmful traditions, irrational fears, authoritarianism, and intolerance. He believes that critical thinking will help Africans break the shackles of modern slavery in all of its forms.

Ssekitooleko Degratiasi is the founder of the Ugandan Humanists Association. His organization has been involved in efforts to rid Africa of land mines and to ban corporal punishment from Ugandan schools. He believes that for humanism to prosper, the movement must gain political power. In light of the attacks upon the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, he believes that humanism is particularly crucial in the fight against terrorism and religious extremism.

Norm R. Allen Jr., the executive director of African Americans for Humanism, discussed the profound impact that humanist ideals have had upon the substantive development of Black intellectualism, activism, and culture in the U.S. He added, however, that according to a recent ABC News belief Internet poll, only 3% of African Americans are non-theists. He said that this does not have to always be the case, but that in any event, the influence of Black humanists will continue to far exceed their numbers.

Allen gave special thanks to Emmanuel Kofi Mensah, who founded the first major humanist group in Nigeria, Action for Humanism. At the International Humanist and Ethical Union Congress in Amsterdam in 1992, Mensah promised that Africa would one day host a large humanist conference. His vision has been realized, and Africa stands poised to make great contributions to organized humanism in the near future.

Most Nigerian humanists expressed strong concern about the violence between Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria. Though their Constitution asserts that Nigeria is a secular nation, there is a constitutional provision allowing Nigerian states to institute religious governments. For this reason, at least a dozen Nigerian states in the north have instituted Sharia (Muslim) legal systems. As a result, tensions have arisen and angry religionists have burnt mosques and churches, and hundreds have been killed. Some Nigerian humanists believe that humanism is the only answer. Others believe that religion will never disappear in Africa, and that the best hope lies in trying to make religions more humanistic.

The conference attracted great media attention. A national television station aired parts of some speeches made by humanist spokespersons at the conference. Radio Nigeria aired remarks from some speakers, and major newspapers in Nigeria ran news of the conference.

The entertainment provided at the inaugural session was exceptional. Sheila Solarin heads the Mayflower School, the leading senior secondary school in Nigeria, and Nigeria's oldest secular school. The Mayflower Students Choral Group sang to the delight of the audience. Afterward, the ASA Cultural Ensemble, Osogbo, thrilled the crowd with traditional/modern dance routines.

Leo Igwe, the secretary of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, and the main organizer of the conference, believes that humanist leaders should be assertive in their efforts to foster humanist ideals. Rather than waiting for like-minded individuals to discover humanism, humanist leaders must take their messages to the people, Igwe says. He plans to do more traveling throughout Africa to plant the seeds of humanism with literature and human contact. He has outlined a plan for establishing sub-regional African humanist networks-West Africa, East and Central Africa, North Africa, and Southern Africa. He says:

"This Action Plan should also provide for the organization of a regional conference at least once every three years. These conferences will be rotated among the different sub-regional networks so that, by 2011, at least one regional humanist conference must have been held in all the sub-regions in the continent."

It is clear that Africa-the cradle of humanity-will play a vital role in the development of international humanism. Humanists worldwide should embrace Igwe's exclamations, "Long live the African Humanist Movement! Long live the International Humanist Movement!"


Norm R. Allen, Jr., is the executive director of African Americans for Humanism.


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